Cape Town:On the third day of the deciding Test in Newlands, the world best fast bowler terrorised the acclaimed batsmen of the No. 1 team during frightening spells of accurate outswing bowling at high speed.
Most did not survive the menacing attack, but the best batsman in the world did, and he dragged his team forward through the harshest of circumstances.
The battle between Dale Steyn, oozing aggression every ball, and Sachin Tendulkar, who was probably beaten more times today than any other day, and yet remained steadfast, was worth travelling unreasonable distances to see. Both champions were winners, for Steyn ripped out five in the innings, while Tendulkar fought hard for his 51st century.
Their efforts left the contest even - India lead's was merely 2 - and ensured that the series would be decided by a second-innings shootout under the Table Mountain.
The absence of the same degree of pace, swing, seam movement and hostility when India's fast bowlers attacked South Africa's batsmen only increased awe for Steyn's efforts.
Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen made a promising start to the chase, adding 50 runs for the first wicket. It was only when Harbhajan Singh, fizzing the ball off a wearing pitch, struck twice towards the close that India once again brought the game into balance.
Steyn bowled only 18 overs today, but to India's batsmen it was an eternity. He charged in at full pelt on the hottest day of the Test, his sinewy body taut, and delivered a barrage of outswingers that curved in towards middle stump before searing away off the pitch.
His spells in the first session were among the finest unrewarded efforts and India, with luck and application, survived them to claw forward in the deciding Test. After lunch, however, Steyn's luck changed with the second new ball, and his sustained hostility during a spell, that was unbelievably more aggressive than the first, yielded two wickets, and set India back considerably.
For India, there was Tendulkar, pulling them along when all others apart from Gautam Gambhir failed, relying on the strength of his mind, faith in his technique and a little bit of luck.
His 146 will rank among his finest hundreds because of the rigorous examinations he passed. Tendulkar was beaten innumerable times by Steyn's outswingers, beaten several times by Lonwabo Tsotsobe extra bounce outside off stump, and cut in half repeatedly by Morne Morkel's jagging in-cutters. But Tendulkar survived, and attacked when he could.
His 176-run stand with Gambhir gave India the edge, which vanished once four wickets fell for 43 runs. In Harbhajan, Tendulkar had a fighting partner, and their partnership of 76 for the eighth wicket once again helped India claw ahead.
Few bowlers would have bowled a better opening over. Steyn's first ball sped towards Tendulkar, landed on good length, reared up, seamed away late and beat the bat. The second was fuller, swung away and took the edge as Tendulkar lunged forward.
Mark Boucher caught it too, diving forward, but strangely his appeal had little support from Steyn. The third fell short of gully, again off Tendulkar's edge, and he brought up his half-century, having resumed overnight on 49. The fourth beat the bat as well. For the fifth, Tendulkar stood out of his crease to counter the swing and drove to the extra-cover boundary. He defended the sixth, and had survived the best over of the Test.
Morkel began his spell by testing Gambhir's patience with a succession of short-of-a-length deliveries that bounced steeply outside off stump. Only in the eighth over of the day did Gambhir's discipline in leaving deliveries outside off waver, and he was beaten often.
For 53 minutes, the spectators at the Calvin Grove only got to see Tendulkar batting from behind, while those at the Wynberg End had the same view of Gambhir.
Tendulkar faced all five overs of Steyn's first spell, while Gambhir negotiated Morkel. The runs came only in twos and fours, a lot of them through edges, and 42 out of the first 50 balls were dots.
Tsotsobe replaced Steyn for the 61st over and continued the trend of beating Tendulkar's bat. Tendulkar responded with a powerful pull to the midwicket boundary and a carve over gully. In Tsotsobe's next over, the 13th of the morning, Tendulkar flicked through midwicket for the day's first single.
Soon Paul Harris' deliveries were jumping at Gambhir for he was bowling wider, aiming for the rough. One ball in the 72nd over leapt at Gambhir and kissed the glove but Boucher failed to take a tough chance.
The next ball was straighter and took the edge, this time Boucher held it. Harris could have had Tendulkar as well, had he been quick enough to catch a ball that was travelling at scary speed. Instead, he got Laxman out as the ball hurt his fingers as it brushed them and broke the stumps at the non-striker's end.
India resumed after lunch on 237 for 4 and Steyn was back at his best. After five dot balls, he produced an outswinger to rival the famed one that bowled Michael Vaughan. This time, Cheteshwar Pujara's pad was in the way. MS Dhoni lasted three balls, wafting one that swerved away to slip. Harbhajan looked like he would get out every ball, so hapless was he against Steyn. One outswinger even clipped his off stump but the bails, incredibly, stayed on.
Tendulkar tried to take strike as Steyn approached his five-overs-per-spell limit and shielded Harbhajan. He had earlier brought up his century by top-edging a hook off Morkel for six over the wicketkeeper, after being cut in half by the previous ball.
The plan worked for Harbhajan mowed Tsotsobe for six over the leg side, and when Steyn returned for a fiery burst just before tea, Harbhajan was confident enough to loft him over the long-on boundary to bring the deficit below fifty. Through it all, was Tendulkar, cutting and driving India forward.
Both batsmen didn't last long after tea, with a refueled Steyn claiming his fifth when Harbhjan top-edged a hook to square leg. With Zaheer for company, Tendulkar took the responsibility of playing Steyn and succeeded in adding valuable runs.
He eventually fell to Morkel, losing his off bail to a delivery that straightened past his bat, when so many had jagged into him previously. He departed with India 21 runs behind South Africa, but had taken them far closer than seemed possible when Steyn was blowing red-hot.